3 schools to receive big grant

Sheila Burt

Physicians at Northwestern and two other academic institutions will collaborate on an extensive five-year research project to better understand Parkinson’s disease — a project NU officials said this week could expand to clinical departments and establish NU as a leading research institution on the disorder.

Physicians at NU, the University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center in Memphis and the University of Texas at San Antonio were awarded $5.5 million by the National Institutes of Health in late September.

Each university also was named a Morris K. Udall Center of Excellence for Parkinson’s Disease Research, a title given to 11 other institutions by NIH’s National Institute for Neurological Diseases and Stroke.

“We’re working hard at trying to build the research community (studying) Parkinson’s disease here,” said Prof. James Surmeier, chairman of physiology at the Feinberg School of Medicine and the project’s director. “This recognition will help us to do that. It will serve as a magnet and allow us to attract even more instructors who are outstanding and that will accelerate our progress.”

NU, which will become the first Udall Center in the Midwest, already has one of the most established deep-brain stimulation programs in existence for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease at Evanston Northwestern Hospital, Surmeier said, but the grant will help expand NU’s research.

Surmeier said $5.5 million is one of the largest grants given for basic research science, which does not involve studying patients.

Parkinson’s disease, a neurological disorder affecting more than 500,000 people, is attributed to the loss of dopamine neurons an causes the body’s muscles to stiffen.

The research project will focus on the makeup of the brain area linked to movement control and learning that is affected by the disorder. Surmeier said the team will concentrate on a newly patented gene therapy that potentially could reverse the disease without subjecting the patient’s brain to electrodes.

“(Electrodes) work pretty (well to) alleviate a lot of the symptoms of the disease,” Surmeier said, “but we’re constantly searching for a new strategy that won’t involve sticking electrodes in the brain.”

Surmeier said he hopes to add a clinical component to the Udall Center that would involve NU faculty in the neurological and neurosurgery departments. He hopes to submit a proposal to the NIH, and if officials there view the clinic as an important extension to the center, funds for research could increase.

“I want all of the clinicians to feel like they’re a part of this,” Surmeier said, “that we’re as responsible for them and they’re as responsible for us.”

John Kessler, chairman of neurology at Feinberg, said a clinical component will help obtain results from patients and expand research development.

“The conclusions you develop in the lab, no matter how outstanding the science, remain an open question,” he said.

Charles Wilson, a biology professor at the University of Texas and one of the leaders of the project, will help develop mathematical models that help identify neuron interaction. Wilson said one of the strongest parts of the research project is its broad focus.

“It’s great to have this collaborative research arrangement,” Wilson said. “One university never really has everything you’re looking for. What’s great about this is that it brings together three different institutions who have three different approaches.”

Mark Bevan, a physiology professor at NU, said the five-year award allows researches a good period of time to make some progress.

“You can’t do research without research funding,” he said.

Surmeier said he believes the grant comes at a time when Parkinson’s disease is becoming more common as the general population ages.

“It’s a devastating disorder,” he said. “We know what causes it, we just don’t know how to correct it. Those of us in the field feel that we’re very close to finding much better treatments – if not a cure — and that makes it exciting, to know that in a relatively short period of a time you may be able to control and alleviate a lot of human suffering. I think that’s exciting.”

THE DAILY’s Scott Gordon contributed to this report.